Under attack by tiny vampires

A year ago, wanting to lose weight and get into better shape, I started running. My rural Vermont town is nestled at the foot of a mountain, and roads are either uphill or down. Each day I ran a little farther until I made it to electric pole #19 at the top of the first steep hill. I knew people jogged into their 80s, a decade away for me, and I planned to keep at this exercise thing to challenge my aging body. 

One evening after a run I was showering and noticed a tiny red tick on my shoulder. Even without my reading glasses I could see little legs wiggling on a body that appeared headless. Ticks excrete an anesthetic at the point of entry to dull the bite and help them avoid detection so they can feed. I hadn’t felt the bite, but the skin around this tick’s legs was red and sore. 

I got out of the shower and called my husband into the bathroom to pull the creature out. He used tweezers and managed to grab the body, but the head broke off and stayed under the skin. 

“You should go to the ER,” he said.

That evening at the hospital the doctor dug out the tick’s head. The nurse gave me two Doxycycline pills and advised, “That should take care of any Lyme.”

When I told a Kentucky friend about the tick, she said one had crawled up her pants leg and burrowed into the back of her thigh without her knowing. It must have feasted on her for three days because by the time she flicked it off, the critter was engorged and skittered across the floor in search of a safe hideaway to digest her B-positive. 

We live by the Green Mountain National Forest, but I had never seen ticks on our property. Where had I picked up my hitchhiking vampire?

Ticks can live for three years without eating while they wait for a juicy host. Imagine being so ravenous that you bury your head in your dinner. I could do that with ice cream. Or chocolate.

I’d been wanting to clear an area thick with ash saplings and wild honeysuckle and instead plant evergreens to screen our neighbor’s house. Her dog had picked up ticks there, but I had sprayed the area and hoped I’d killed all the little beasts—or at least chased them away. I girded myself with long pants tucked into my socks, long sleeves, gardening gloves, and bug spray and spent an afternoon clipping brush and settling young spruce trees into their new home. If I’d encountered a tick, I hadn’t noticed.

Our house sits at the edge of acres of thick woods. We’ve seen moose, bear, coyotes, foxes, and the ubiquitous white-tailed deer that munch my hosta and phlox. My gardens are a midnight candy shop for deer families, and most spring and summer mornings I wake to stubs of hosta plants. For Mother’s Day, my daughter-in-law gave me perennials that needed planting—Jacob’s ladder, bleeding heart, hens and chickens, and other garden plants. I covered up and spritzed myself with a deet spray. Dividing the baby plants between two gardens, I took my time to compost and mulch around them. When I came in for lunch, I was pretty proud of how the gardens were filling out with poppies, iris, and peonies. 

As I was eating my sandwich, I felt a tickle on my neck. I reached and found a moving lump—a large black tick searching for soft skin to plumb with its corkscrew head. It appeared white-tailed visitors had been depositing their bloodsuckers in my gardens. I was under attack.

There are 850 species of ticks around the world, ninety of which are found in the U.S. Hard-shell ticks are found in wooded and grassy areas like where I live. Brown dog ticks found in the western U.S. transmit Rocky Mountain Spotted fever, symptoms of which are similar to Lyme, but the western bacteria is potentially fatal. Blacklegged ticks, also known as deer ticks, carry the Lyme bacteria as well as the babesiosis parasite and anaplasmosis, which can cause severe illness or death if not treated. 

My gardens require constant attention in the spring, and a few days later when I came in from weeding, what appeared to be a deer tick crawled across my shirt. I found a third clinging to my towel when I emerged from the outdoor shower. Had it lain in wait on the post by the shower stall, or had I brushed the towel against a plant on which the vermin perched? How clever these beasts to anticipate the towel eventually would be against my naked skin, the skin it planned to violate on a tender spot of flesh pulsing with blood. 

Each of a tick’s eight legs is equipped with a sharp claw that allows it to cling to fur, hair, cloth, and skin. I tried shaking the towel, to no avail. The tick was not letting go. Normally I wouldn’t touch a tick, but this one had overstepped its bounds. It wasn’t playing fair. I grabbed and pulled in order to release it from the soft cotton loops.

The body of a tick excretes a fluid that hardens around it, like a crab shell. Scientists call it a scutum. The only way I could think to kill my towel traveler was to smashed it against a tabletop with the edge of a glass bottle. I used the bottle that held tick spray.

I have since learned not to squish ticks. If they carry Lyme, the bacteria can be released and do as much harm as a bite. It’s better to flush the tick down the toilet or burn them, as we did when I was growing up in Virginia. Each summer evening my mother checked my brother and me for ticks after we’d been rolling in grass and tromping through nearby woods. If she found one, which she invariably did, she squeezed it into a balled-up tissue and set the tissue afire with her cigarette lighter. We liked listening for the pop indicating the danger had been exterminated. 

When I flipped over the creature I had just killed, I saw how the legs were attached to its pale belly in perfect symmetry, each leg positioned to move in synchronicity with the others. 

What marvelous and terrible machinery!

Ticks are not insects but are small arachnids, like spiders and scorpions. They don’t jump or drop from trees onto their hosts (thank goodness). Instead, they use what’s known as questing where one will perch at the tip of a blade of grass or the stem of a bush, waiting to sense carbon dioxide, body heat, or vibrations. Extending its front legs, the tick waits for a host to brush the vegetation and quickly latches on.

A tick’s brain is not located in its heads but in the abdomen. Although, brain isn’t the right word. Ganglia is attached to the abdominal nerve cord, acting as a thought organ. The tick knows only two things—eat and breed.

One warm day I had an urge to walk down the driveway for a visit with our neighbor Nancy. She mows her lush lawn to the edge of beautiful gardens abloom with color. For decades we’ve been best friends. In the field that separates our properties, we mow a wide swath of grass as a path between us.

Since I was sticking to the mowed area, I thought it safe to wear shorts and a loose tee shirt. Nancy served tea and cookies, and we had a good chat. On the way back, I checked the young evergreens I’d planted. Noting that the long grass around them, I reminded myself to get the mower out the next day. For now, I tiptoed through the grass quickly, stopping only long enough to satisfy myself that the trees were sprouting candles, a signal of their health. My lilac bush was bursting with purple blossoms, and I wiggled into its branches to snap off enough flowers to fill a vase. 

I had taken to showering after being among the plants but this time I didn’t bother before dinner, thinking I had been prudent in avoiding my nemesis. Before bed, I stripped down for my nightly cleanse and found the dreaded wiggling legs protruding from my stomach. I hadn’t realized I’d been bitten, although bite is not exactly the word. The head was embedded under the ski, and the tick was enjoying a feast of my blood.

I called for my husband to bring the special tick tweezers he’d bought after my tick incident the previous year, and he extracted the arachnid and sent it down the sink drain.

“We should have saved it,” I said, “to test it for Lyme.” But too late. I comforted myself with the statistic that only black-legged ticks carry Lyme and at most only half of those have the bacteria. What color were my dinner guest’s legs? I wasn’t sure—another reason to save the tick. 

Male ticks eat very little but hang onto a host until a female arrives. While she dines, he mates with her. Female ticks must drink blood in order to produce eggs, a thousand at each laying. After several weeks, the eggs will produce nearly invisible and ravenously hungry seed ticks. In the nymph stage, a deer tick is the size of a speck of ground pepper. So tiny, they are difficult to detect and often the victim is unaware of having been bitten.

The female may lay up to five thousand eggs in its two-year lifespan.

The spot where Harry removed my girl tick at first looked like a small red hole. An hour later, a dark ring surrounded the wound. Not a red ring, I thought—no problem.

A few weeks later I felt itchy. When I inspected, I found a red rash on my chest, my breasts, and my stomach. The rash lingered for a few days, so I called my doctor. She ordered a blood test for the next day, a Friday. I had stopped running—I was just too tired. Any activity sent me for bed rest before I could drag myself up to make dinner. I was back in bed by eight o’clock. And I started having headaches and dizziness.

I wouldn’t have the blood test report until Monday and tried not to worry. Over the weekend, I assured myself the test result would be negative. 

On Monday morning, the email arrived. There it was—in bright red letters, bold face, highlighted in yellow, followed by an exclamation mark: POSITIVE!

I stared at the word in disbelief. Then I closed my eyes. There had to be a mistake. Advanced Lyme can cause encephalitis, meningitis, autoimmune disorders, facial paralysis, arthritis, personality swings, heart palpitations—and the list goes on. For years, a friend has battled Lyme and babesiosis. The parasites lodge in the red blood cells causing pain, anemia, blood clots, unstable blood pressure, and organ failure. 

When I looked again at the email, the word was still there—POSITIVE! My life is over, I thought. I was condemned, issued a death sentence. Or worse—a permanent disability.

The life cycle of the Lyme bacteria renders it undetectable except at certain stages of development, but my blood test was positive for antigens of Lyme bacteria. What did that mean? 

My doctor was not surprised by my test results, having seen a significant rise in the number of Lyme cases this summer. In fact, the Bay Area Lyme Foundation reports 400,000 cases of Lyme in the U.S. each year, but the actual number may be much higher because so many people have Lyme without knowing it. As for my blood test, the doctor explained that the IgG result measures immunoglobins indicative of antibodies battling diseases. My antibodies had been battling Lyme bacteria for some time. 

“How long is ‘some time?’” I asked.

“Up to a year,” she said.

I’d had Lyme for a year and not known it? How was that possible?

The doctor prescribed a two-week regimen of the antibiotic Doxycycline, 100 mg twice a day. The Doxy made me nauseous unless I took it after eating, but crystallized ginger and probiotics helped. The pharmacist recommended a dose of 85 billion probiotics to replenish the good gut bacteria that the antibiotic would kill along with the bad bacteria. At night I took liquid drops of a natural stress reliever to help ease my fears and bring on sleep. 

After two weeks of the antibiotic, I felt my energy returning. I’ve gotten out of shape in the last year, but I’m starting out again with long walks on those hilly roads. The good news is the increased demand for a Lyme preventive has prompted action from pharmaceutical companies. Pfizer has shown promising results in phase 2 trials for antibodies that neutralize Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme. The next phase will be introduced next year, and FDA approval may come in 2024.

With warming temperatures and a ballooning tick infestation, do we have time to wait?  That’s three springs in our gardens and our woods with newly-hatched tick babies that mean to do us harm. And a vaccine will not keep ticks from biting. Maybe the focus should be on making ticks sterile so they don’t reproduce because whether I get Lyme again or not, I’m not crazy about the idea of having an eight-legged vampire sucking blood from my belly—or anywhere else on my body.

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2 thoughts on “Under attack by tiny vampires

  1. Ellie,

    What an experience! So kind of you to share so that we may all be more vigilant. I hope you and H are feeling better and recovered from the Tick takeover. I have been picking the nasty critters off my puppy and am grateful to have a light colored pet since the contrast makes spotting the ticks so much easier. Vinnie began taking a preventative and we hope that there will soon be a prophylactic treatment for humans.

    Wishing you peace and good health,
    Susan Ryan


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